Last week, President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that peace talks with the Taliban were “dead,” putting a halt to nearly a year of conversations between the United States and the insurgent terrorist group. The proclamation came right after Trump revealed plans to have a secret meeting with Taliban leaders at the historic Camp David. The president claimed he ended these talks after the Taliban admitted to their role in an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan that killed at least 11 people, including one U.S. service member. This attack alone, he said, was enough to indicate that Taliban leaders do not “have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”
However, this attack is far from the first indication that the Taliban has continued hostilities during negotiations. In fact, negotiations continued amid a spike in killings of both Afghan civilians and U.S. soldiers by the Taliban. Many of these have been substantially more deadly than the suicide attack in Kabul last week, suggesting that this event served more as an excuse than a reason to end negotiations.
The sudden end of peace talks came with surprise as the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, stated an agreement had been reached that was waiting to be finalized by Trump. This abrupt reversal casts doubt on the Trump administration’s motives for coming to the negotiation table in the first place. The hypothetical agreement allows Trump to fulfill a longstanding campaign promise to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan, satisfying his voter base as the 2020 election looms around the corner. Moreover, canceling negotiations last week — two days before the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — allowed the administration to demonstrate a superficial willingness to “stand up” against the Taliban and paint the insurgents as the true obstacle to peace.
Peace talks with the Taliban are one example of Trump exploiting political issues to maintain relevance, further his image and establish his legacy. Trump’s choice to announce an end to previously secret negotiations through a social media platform not only cheapens the issue but turns it into an open spectacle. Drawing attention and a following to his administration by dramatizing political decisions reflects a strategy that Trump has used repeatedly during the U.S.-North Korea summit and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump follows a legacy of presidents who use political negotiations for personal gain and as a ploy, ultimately impeding the improvement of U.S. foreign policy.
As part of a generation that grew up with the 18-year long conflict in Afghanistan, seeing yet another president use the promise of peace as a political gambit is frustrating. In 2003, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to “major-combat,” even as NATO added 65,000 troops to the war-torn country. Later, President Barack Obama promised to withdraw all troops by 2014, but instead left nearly 100,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan at the end of that year. As a longtime critic of the war in Afghanistan, Trump had said that his “original instinct was to pull out.” In fact, in February of 2019, American diplomats sat down with Taliban officials to begin one of the final rounds of negotiation. In the end, Trump’s cancellation of peace talks possibly lost him a rare opportunity to put an end to a conflict that continues to kill both U.S. troops and innocent civilians.
War is complex, and simply withdrawing our troops overnight without considering the ramifications would be irresponsible and potentially disastrous to the Afghan government, now that the Taliban controls about 14.5 percent of the country’s territories (this excludes those territories currently contested). However, Afghanistan's unstable government has long been the justification to prolong this conflict. President Bush stated in 2005 that the purpose of the war was to “help ensure Afghanistan's long-term security, democracy, and prosperity.” Yet, over a decade later, the Afghan democracy remains weak, flawed and corrupt.
While the U.S. has long claimed to be a bearer of peace and democracy, much of Afghanistan political instability is a result of the Taliban’s influence and the continued occupation by the United States. Trump argues that simply leaving and giving the Taliban free reign would be a dramatic abdication of responsibility. However, if the U.S. should continue to act as a beacon of democracy, there needs to be substantive discussion about how the U.S. can rectify its past and current foreign policy decisions in Afghanistan. Actions like those made by Trump this past week do not accomplish this end. Moreover, the peace talks thus far have excluded the Afghan government.
We recognize that the conflict in Afghanistan is complex, and our call to action requires a genuine commitment to peace. An essential first step to reviving peace talks is a re-evaluation of U.S. foreign policy decisions made in Afghanistan for the past 20 years. Simply coming to the table is not enough, and it is imperative for all parties to not only be included in the talks, but also be truly committed to ending the conflict to protect the lives of both U.S. troops and Afghan civilians. Hence, the Trump administration must prioritize the peace process rather than use it to for political capital and media attention.